Colombia: para victims sue banana giant

Advocates for the families of 173 people murdered in the banana-growing regions of Colombia filed suit today against Chiquita Brands International, in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. The families allege that Chiquita paid millions of dollars, and tried to ship thousands of machine guns to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC. The AUC is a violent, right-wing paramilitary organization supported by the Colombian army. In 2001, the Bush Administration classified the AUC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Its units are often described as “death squads.”

According to family representatives, the AUC was used to assassinate their husbands, wives and children, who were apparently interfering with Chiquita’s financial interests. In the last ten years, more than ten thousand people have been murdered by the AUC, many of them in the banana zones where Chiquita financed the AUC’s operations.

“This is a landmark case, maybe the biggest terrorism case in history,” said Terry Collingsworth, who directs the litigation. “In terms of casualties, it’s the size of three World Trade Center attacks.” Collingsworth is already known in Colombia for his lawsuits against Coca Cola, Drummond, and Nestle for the targeted killings of union leaders by the AUC.

The case began with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed criminal charges in March of this year. Chiquita not only admitted the truth of the charges, but agreed to cooperate in the DOJ’s ongoing investigation. Although Chiquita got off with a slap on the wrist—a $25 million dollar fine and no jail time for executives—their admissions set the stage for a multi-billion dollar lawsuit. It could be the biggest wrongful death case in U.S. history, eventually involving thousands of victims.

“Chiquita’s victims are living in dire poverty,” said Paul Wolf, co-counsel in the case. Wolf spent the month of May speaking to victims’ groups in shanty towns where families seek refuge from the death squads, which continue to murder anyone perceived as an enemy. “Reparations can’t bring back the dead, but there are a lot of widows and orphans with no means of support. Most of them have fled their homes, and don’t know where their next meal will come from,” observed Wolf.

As word of the lawsuit spreads, the number of families joining it has skyrocketed. “Putting Chiquita on trial for hundreds, or even thousands of murders could put them out of business. I guess this is the one scenario where I would support the death penalty—the death of a truly evil corporation,” said Collingsworth, remarking on Chiquita’s hundred year history in Colombia. For most of that time, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. (Lawyers for Chiquita Victims, June 7)

See our last posts on Colombia, the paramilitary scandal, and the Chiquita scandal.

  1. Paramilitary intimidation?
    The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a US-based group that supports civil peace initiatives in Colombia, reports that its Bogotá offices were burglarized June 2. “According to people who live in the same building, unknown persons forcibly entered the FOR house/office in Bogotá between 6-7 p.m., breaking the lock and part of the door. The individuals stole FOR’s two central computers that contain the organization’s records, including information on the Peace Community of San JosĂ© de ApartadĂł. This community has been the target of attacks by armed groups and is covered by protective measures issued by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.”

    FOR and 40 other groups recently issued a statement calling for an end to all US military aid to Colombia.

    1. Bogotá: more burglaries target activist computers
      The latest in a series of break-ins in Bogotá occurred Sept. 6, with the theft of two computers—and nothing else—from the home of Gloria Cuartas, the former mayor of Apartadó and a long-time supporter of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.

      The theft follows targeted burglaries in June of computers with human rights files from FOR, Justapaz (Mennonite peace group that works with communities at risk) and CorporaciĂłn Yira Castro (an organization of women human rights attorneys). In response to these and earlier thefts of computers from human rights organizations, 36 Members of Congress wrote to President Uribe, urging support for the groups, public denunciation of the crimes, and a thorough investigation.

      “These crimes remain in impunity and end up as countless charges that are filed as common burglaries. But [judging] by the form and consistency that computers are disappearing for several years, they constitute a subtle form of social control of those of who think differently from the regime,” Cuartas said. “These acts make up part of a military policy of persecution of human rights defenders and political opponents of democratic security policy,” she said.

      Cuartas is profiled in I Will Never Be Silenced: Testimonies of Hope from Colombian Women, the recent publication by FOR and American Friends Service
      Committee. (FOR Colombia Program, Oct. 1)

  2. “Stabilizing” terrorists in Colombia?
    From a front-page report on Chiquita’s payments to paramilitary groups, Washington Post, Aug. 2:

    Legal sources on both sides say there was a genuine debate within the Justice Department about the seriousness of the crime of paying AUC. For some high-level administration officials, Chiquita’s payments were not aiding an obvious terrorism threat such as al-Qaeda; instead, the cash was going to a violent South American group helping a major US company
    maintain a stabilizing presence in Colombia.